HELENA — Montana’s lone U.S. House member was in Helena Monday to get a firsthand look at how the Montana National Guard is assisting with the statewide battle with wildfires.
U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale toured the Army Aviation Support Facility at the Helena Regional Airport. There, crews maintain the helicopters that are used in Guard operations – including two currently working to support firefighting efforts.
“I’m glad to hear that they’re working very closely with Forest Service and with the DNRC to find out where they can be the most helpful, and that’s what we’re seeing,” Rosendale said.
Gov. Greg Gianforte authorized the National Guard to be called in for wildfire duty last month. The first resources were requested just over two weeks ago. Now, nearly 200 Guard members are on active fire duty.
“It’s gone very well so far,” said Brig. Gen. Jamie Wilkins, the Guard’s director of joint staff. “The soldiers and airmen of the state have stood up at the request of the governor.”
Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters are dropping water, and four teams of 20 Guard members each are serving as hand crews on the fire lines – three on the West Lolo Complex near Thompson Falls and one on the Alder Fire near Wise River. On Monday, two more crews are set to go to the Woods Creek Fire between Townsend and White Sulphur Springs.
Another 500 troops are set to go through training in the next ten days to get their “red card” wildland firefighting certification. They’ll then be ready to respond if needed.
Wilkins said this is the most resources the Montana National Guard has dedicated to wildfires in about 20 years, and he expects more calls to come before the end of fire season.
“We understand that this is going to be a long haul, and safety is our number-one concern – for our soldiers and all the citizens of the state of Montana,” he said.
Wilkins said the federal government has been a great help, providing support for fire training and other expenses. Rosendale said it’s important for Congress to give the Guard the resources they need.
“That’s how we’re going to save lives, that’s how we’re going to be more effective and make sure that the Guard can do what they’re asked to do,” he said.
Earlier on Monday, Rosendale visited Fort Harrison, where he got more information about the wildfire response and talked to some of the troops getting ready to go out as hand crews.